“Nuclear Batteries” Offer a New Approach to Carbon-Free Energy

MIT Nuclear Battery Concept

This cut-away rendering of the MIT nuclear battery concept shows important components such as the instrumentation and control module, the reactor, and the power module. Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

Jacopo Buongiorno and others say factory-built microreactors trucked to usage sites could be a safe, efficient option for decarbonizing electricity systems.

We may be on the brink of a new paradigm for nuclear power, a group of nuclear specialists suggested recently in The Bridge, the journal of the National Academy of Engineering. Much as large, expensive, and centralized computers gave way to the widely distributed PCs of today, a new generation of relatively tiny and inexpensive factory-built reactors, designed for autonomous plug-and-play operation similar to plugging in an oversized battery, is on the horizon, they say.

These proposed systems could provide heat for industrial processes or electricity for a military base or a neighborhood, run unattended for five to 10 years, and then be trucked back to the factory for refurbishment. The authors — Jacopo Buongiorno, MIT’s TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering; Robert Frida, a founder of GenH; Steven Aumeier of the Idaho National Laboratory; and Kevin Chilton, retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command — have dubbed these small power plants “nuclear batteries.” Because of their simplicity of operation, they could play a significant role in decarbonizing the world’s electricity systems to avert catastrophic climate change, the researchers say. MIT News asked Buongiorno to describe his group’s proposal.

Q: The idea of smaller, modular nuclear reactors has been discussed for several years. What makes this proposal for nuclear batteries different?

A: The units we describe take that concept of factory fabrication and modularity to an extreme. Earlier proposals have looked at reactors in the range of 100 to 300 megawatts of electric output, which are a factor of 10 smaller than the traditional big beasts, the big nuclear reactors at the gigawatt scale. These could be assembled from factory-built components, but they still require some assembly at the site and a lot of site preparation work. So, it’s an improvement over the traditional plants, but it’s not a huge improvement.

This nuclear battery concept is really a different thing because of the physical scale of these machines — about 10 megawatts. It’s so small that the whole power plant is actually built in a factory and fits within a standard container. The idea is to fit the whole power plant, which comprises a microreactor and a turbine that converts the heat to electricity, into the container.

This provides several benefits from an economic point of view. You are completely decoupling your projects and your technology from the construction site, which has been the source of every possible schedule delay and cost overrun for nuclear projects over the past 20 years.

This way it becomes sort of energy on demand. If the customer wants either heat or electricity, they can get it within a couple of months, or even weeks, and then it’s plug and play. This machine arrives on the site, and just a few days later, you start getting your energy. So, it’s a product, it’s not a project. That’s how I like to characterize it.

Q: You talk about potentially having such units widely distributed, including even in residential areas to power whole neighborhoods. How confident can people be as to the safety of these plants?

A: It’s exceptionally robust — that’s one of the selling points. First of all, the fact that it’s small is good for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the overall amount of heat that’s generated is proportional to the power, which is small. But more importantly, it has a high surface-to-volume ratio because, again, it’s small, which makes it a lot easier to keep cool under all circumstances. It’s passively cooled, to a point where nobody has to do anything. You don’t even need to open a valve or anything. The system takes care of itself.

It also has a very robust containment structure surrounding it to protect against any release of radiation. Instead of the traditional big concrete dome, there are steel shells that basically encapsulate the whole system. And as for security, at most sites, we envision that these would be located below grade. That provides some protection and physical security from external attackers.

As for other safety issues, you know, if you think about the famous nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, all three of these issues are mediated by the design of these nuclear batteries. Because they are so small, it’s basically impossible to get that type of outcome from any sequence of events.

Q: How do we know that these new kinds of reactors will work, and what would need to happen for such units to become widely available?

A: NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory have done a similar demonstration project, which they called a microreactor, for space applications. It took them just three years from the start of design to fabrication and testing. And it cost them $20 million. It was orders of magnitude smaller than traditional large nuclear plants that easily cost a billion-plus and take a decade or more to build.

There are also different companies out there now developing their own designs, and every one is a bit different. Westinghouse is already working on a version of such nuclear batteries (though they are not using that term), and they plan to run a demonstration unit in two years.

The next step will be to build a pilot plant at one of the national laboratories that has extensive equipment for testing nuclear reactor systems, such as the Idaho National Laboratory. They have a number of facilities that are being modified to accommodate these microreactors, and they have extra layers of safety. Because it’s a demonstration project, you want to make sure that if something happens you didn’t foresee, that you don’t have any release to the environment.

Then, the plant could go through an accelerated program of testing, subjecting it to more extreme conditions than would ever be encountered in normal operation. You essentially abuse it and show by direct testing that it can take all those external loads or situations without exceeding any failure limits. And once it’s proven there under rigorous conditions, widespread commercial installations could begin quite quickly.

These nuclear batteries are ideally suited to create resilience in very different sectors of the economy, by providing a steady dependable source of power to back up the increasing reliance on intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. And, these highly distributed systems can also help to alleviate pressures on the grid by being sited just where their output is needed. This can provide greater resiliency against any disruptions to the grid and virtually eliminate the issue of transmission losses. If these become as widespread as we envision, they could make a significant contribution to reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Reference: “A Strategy to Unlock the Potential of Nuclear Energy for a New and Resilient Global Energy-Industrial Paradigm” by Jacopo Buongiorno, Robert Freda, Steven Aumeier and Kevin Chilton, 14 June 2021, The Bridge.

50 Comments on "“Nuclear Batteries” Offer a New Approach to Carbon-Free Energy"

  1. William Readling | June 25, 2021 at 8:52 pm | Reply

    Not much said about the heat engine that would be included in the “battery”. A “micro turbine” usually refers to a megaWatt range gas turbine burning some sort of fuel. If it is a steam turbine(Rankine cycle), the engine will require regular maintenance, for instance control of the water’s chemistry to avoid corrosion. Assuming a thermal efficiency of 1/3, two thirds of the heat will end up as waste, where will it go? Where ever it goes, it will be carried by water, that will require regular maintenance to avoid fouling.

    • While they didn’t mention the heat engine design itself, you’d be wrong in assuming that all small scale turbines require regular maintenance. A self contained turbine, completely closed to outside contamination, with high quality components could last for decades without need for repair. Smaller turbines undergo much smaller stresses due to the nature of torque increasing with the length of each blade.

      For your water contamination theory, that’s wrong twofold. The water inside the turbine channels needs only to be heated by the fissile materials. It doesn’t need to contact them. It’s no different than cooking on a frying pan instead of directly on your stovetop. The heat will conduct through a shared surface contact. Secondly, there does not need to be an external water source for cooling the reactor itself. As stated, because of its size this is unnecessary. The square-cubed law states that the volume of a container always increases at a faster rate than the surface area. By decreasing the volume significantly you increase the amount of surface area per unit of fissile material, this removing the need for more cooling than simple convection through the air surrounding the reactor. It’s no different than comparing how easy it is for the surrounding air to dissipate the heat of a match versus a campfire. A match in my living room won’t start a fire unless I’m an idiot, but a campfire will burn my house down.

      It’s fine to have opinions on the viability and usefulness of the technology, but don’t bash it on a “scientific” basis when you don’t understand the most basic principles involved.

      • Article says “about 10 megawatts” of power produced, or 10 million watts. William Reading is correct, a heat engine such as a steam turbine has a thermal efficiency of around 1/3, perhaps as good as 1/2. So at least 10 million watts of power gets dissipated as heat. About the equivalent of 10 to 20 thousand household toasters of heat, all going at once. Where does that heat go? This is why nuclear reactors are often placed near a river or the ocean. Hardly a battery.

  2. One thing people don’t realize is all energy produces heat. Add and add little bits of heat.i would guess we are making a few percent of the suns heat now. That makes us warmer, then Richard Branson, Musk and others destroy our ozone and let more of the suns energy hit earth. Stupid people!

    • The Sun produces more energy in one second than the entire human race has ever consumed.

      At the current annual energy production of the United States, it would take just over nine million years of to match 1 second of the sun’s output.

  3. None of these scientists ever say what they propose to do with the nuclear waste that takes thousands of years to breakdown, and so hard to contain.

    • William M Readling | June 26, 2021 at 3:31 pm | Reply

      There is a company that is marketing a nuclear reactor that will be fueled by used light water reactor fuel. It also has many feature that render it safer than any pressurized water rector design. It actually retains higher lanthanides, like plutonium until they fission.
      By making used fuel a valuable commodity, these reactors would change used fuel from a waste product, into a valuable resource.
      The solution to technological problems are technological.
      The company’s name is Elysium industries.


  4. Mr M R Dowling | June 26, 2021 at 7:05 am | Reply

    There are many problems which require nkclear physicist and engineers to address. This is 15 years down the line. They won’t be operating until all current laws are fulfilled.

    • I have a hunch the vast bulk of the nuclear energy issues and the foundational issues of nucelar reactors and issues such as how to turn heat into electricity have been worked out. The bulk of the remainng issues, as described, have been solved at least once before (by NASA for instance).
      This is the stage for good, agressive engineering and very careful qualification testing.
      The fun challange will be the production processes to bring the costs down to make these cost effective. The usual ‘penalty’ for small energy producers is that they cost more per megawatt. By bringing production, installation and maintenance costs down they might be able to counter that effect. It will be interesting to see their eventual $/MW as compared to Wind turbines and solar panels.

  5. Dr. Richard Goldman | June 26, 2021 at 9:39 am | Reply

    I can’t wait for the excuses these guys will come up with to cover their asses when the first unit is stolen and disassembled by criminals or terrorists, who will then use the nuclear fuel to blackmail our country. “We didn’t know”…

    Radioactive materials DO NOT BELONG outside of highly secure facilities. What are these “geniuses” thinking???

    • There are LOTS of ‘dangerous’ materials in our modern life. I agree that they need to make clear their ‘security story’ as part of their sales pitch, but such problems seem to me to fall into the category of ‘solvable’. Different companies with different technologies will result in different inherent risks posed by ‘bad guys’ and then there are always strategies for mitigating the remaining risks.
      Nuclear energy is like Airplanes. People are so inherently nervous about it that ANY incident becomes national news resulting in increased government oversight. Note that NOW, Airplanes are notably safer (aside from the health and sanity issues from being inside with all those people for hours) than most any other form of travel.

  6. How is the nuclear waste being dealt with?

  7. Missouri astronomer | June 26, 2021 at 1:05 pm | Reply

    I would love to pretend this will work out and isn’t a terrible idea even though it has been done before and was a terrible idea then. Let’s say you did somehow make this safe to use, it still means nuclear material is inside of it. How long before some group of idiots (terrorists) get ahold of a couple of these and figure out how to extract whatever nuclear material they are running on?
    I’m not saying they are going to make weapons grade plutonium, what I am pointed out is dirty bombs exist and this would make it almost 100% easier to make one. Another point to make would be when nuclear power plants “melt down” it is because the nuclear material became too hot and literally melts. Exactly what material will these be made out of so a super hot nuclear material couldn’t melt through it if it did indeed fail. This is all just obvious, here are some less obvious things.
    Where do we plan to put the spent fuel cells? The image shows it being almost in a vehicle, vehicles crash, so how well do these containers do in crashes? If it’s supposed to be for structures, those collapse and go through earthquakes, so once again how strong is this material it’s made of? Lastly, did we not learn anything from the Titanic when it comes to putting extra metal on something then calling it indestructible?
    Technology should be turning away from sources of energy that pollute. Nuclear power plants release how much toxic matter exactly? Is it suddenly less than solar panels and wind turbines? To call nuclear energy a clean energy is like calling Chernobyl a great place to move your family to. If Chernobyl was the only place I could mention I probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, yet we proved not too long ago we still can’t control a full sized meltdown. How is a one tenth scale meltdown going to be different exactly? Do I only have to wear one tenth of a radiation suit? Sorry but nuclear energy is not clean energy. It is putting the problem off and making the next few generations deal with it instead of us. Tell me one last thing, is there still a bunch of nuclear storage sites that are leaking into the environment including one we even forgot to put a floor on? Yes, so how about until we undo the evil that atomic energy has brought us we don’t try to make new forms of it? Is it too much to ask that you pick up after yourself before you get a new set of toys out to play with?

    • You should do some research, clearly your asking a bunch of rhetorical questions to rove your point but if you actually did the research you’d understand the possibilities behind nuclear

  8. Hope would you prevent a catastrophic event such as people attempting to destroy or rupture the casing which could lead to meltdown if the fuel is a non-fissile material or prevent the leak of radioactive contamination to the surrounding area. Your talking about putting a nuclear reactor in the hands of the common man who is still fascinated with the attributes of explosions, personal gain, and harm to others. Something as grand as this needs to be available, but also secured to prevent a catastrophe whether intentional or non-intentional

  9. I envisaged a nuclear system for automobiles creating steam to move the vehicle along about forty years ago.I thought that it would be dangerous to the public and impractical. On reading the commentary of a reader about waste energy it occurred to me that the waste energy that cannot be trapped by the water can be trapped by antifreeze as is done in modern vehicles currently and recirculated.(I am not an engineer.)

    • Antifreeze in automobiles doesn’t trap energy. The coolant, what you’re calling antifreeze, carries heat from the engine to a radiator where it is transferred to the environment. No heat is trapped. Just for clarification, the coolant in an automobile is mostly water with antifreeze added. Antifreeze is just that, a substance that prevents coolant (water) from freezing, often ethylene glycol.

  10. You still have to deal with all the radioactive guano when decommissioning the plant. Calling it a ‘battery is just eco white wash.

  11. Definitely lots of logistics advantages… would this be safe inside a burning building? That would inevitably happen at least once if it had wide adoption, and if the answer is nuclear containment failure then it could create an enormously dangerous situation, especially since arson would become a viable way to create a nuclear catastrophe. That said, maybe it retracts the fuel rods and nothing bad happens under those circumstances?

  12. I wonder if the actual engineers had already considered these things? What do you think?

  13. Jake, I wonder if the actual engineers had already considered these things? What do you think?

  14. Oh great. Im reading news of the future. Mico reactor – fake maintenance crew remove portable reactor – material suspected onsold for dirty bomb manufacture. Just what we need (not).

  15. Didn’t Canada develop one in the 70’s or 80”s that could fit in the back of a half ton and power a small town?

  16. You didn’t read the article. Passive cooling.

  17. They can make their proposals but the NIMBY factor will ensure thankfully that this hair-brained concept never sees the light of day. Firmed renewables by way of solar/wind/PHES/batteries/LDES will be way forward, not nuke. This is just a stupid diversion.

  18. This cannot be the future. More nuclear waste gets accumulated and controlling heat will be the challenging part, encountering safety issues are also economically not viable.

  19. There are a number of similar designs already on three market, and completely self contained. The issue with most is more that they are designed to be disposable, and given the cost and contents this is a fairly undesirable idea, let alone the implied purchase of future replacements.

  20. Mini nuclear power stations based on the power units in nuclear ships are the obvious first step. Rolls Royce are obviously investigating and I assume they are not the only ones. Naturally these systems are steam generators for electricity production. For small units direct heat to electricity is the goal. Not sure of detail but the idea of plasma flowing acting like a magnet seems logical. Obviously the ultimate goal is the fusion battery. Is that decades or centuries away?

    • David, there is a running joke in scientific circles…fusion power is and always will be just 30 years away. I’m actually cheering for the pressurized plasma approach that’s currently in the theory stage, computer models look promising. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see fusion power realized, and even if they had proof of concept today it would take decades to bring fusion power to the masses.

  21. The word is “mitigated” – not “mediated”!

  22. When they say “Container size” does this mean “Shipping Container”?
    For “convenience”?
    Shipping containers fall off ships (check out the insurance companies statistics on how many of these containers are lost at sea, it is an immense %age, unbelievably immense)
    YouTube “Containers at sea”.
    Or am I misunderstanding the meaning here?

    • Ahab, I don’t have any evidence but I also took it to mean shipping containers. And you’re right those things fall off container ships with alarming regularity.

  23. If we could harness just 1% of the virtue signalling coming from peoples mouths, there would be no need for other energy sources.

  24. How are these different from the small reactors that power hundreds of naval ships and subs and have been doing so for half a century?

    • They really don’t provide enough information in this article to actually answer your question completely. They are talking about a reactor that is smaller than those typically used in naval vessels. The only other distinction I can make from the little amount of info presented here is that when they talk of the units being below grade (buried) it sounds as if they want to make them fully autonomous-no personnel or operators required. I could easily be wrong about that though, hopefully so. I’m an ex submariner and the thought of a reactor without an on site operator doesn’t fit into my view of reactor ops.

  25. One it’s probably a liquid salt reactor. So no need for water or steam for that matter. Also waste as it is small is also very small and unlike big reactors where there’s waste every few months as stated they run 5-10 years before needing service. Maybe do a little reading and understanding of different types of nuclear reactors before you just start saying silly thing’s.

  26. Vernon Brechin | June 27, 2021 at 5:22 pm | Reply

    This was a typical promotional hype article where the journalist made no effort to present contrasting views. Such conceptual graphics are likely to impress many with almost no understanding of nuclear power generation. No technical details were presented here. There again was no effort to address the short term or final disposition of the highly radioactive fission product waste stream, or why no country has an operating deep geological repository 78 years after the nuclear age began. The generation of the electrical power has always taken precedence.

    For most of the last half-century of the nuclear power industry no effort has been made to address the known threats. Only recently have long-time nuclear power advocates addressed that issue, primarily as a tool to promote their love affair with the nuclear genie.

  27. Greta Thunberg be damned Millennials through Gen Z are NOT going to reduce their power usage. They have no clue how much power their computers and appliances use. They haven’t a clue how much power is required to provide them internet, Youtube, Netflix and cloud storage. Most can’t even calculate simple wattage mathematics. They will in fact increase power usage multiple folds through much higher vehicular electric consumption. Nuclear is the only way out for them and what was once the “N” word is now being pushed by mainstream corporate media. Fortunately there are many new developments showing promise such as SMRs to lower the risks which are currently quite low. These technologies will provide a stopgap until fusion scientists make major breakthroughs.

  28. Yeah but it’s REALLY HEAVY and only worth 75 caps, so no need to pick it up unless you need small energy cells and your science skill is at least 75.

  29. Frosted Flake | June 29, 2021 at 1:31 am | Reply

    A nice, information free, puff piece.

    Thanks very much.

  30. inkoalawetrust | June 29, 2021 at 2:36 pm | Reply

    I like how the comments on an article by a site called SciTechDaily, are full of people who are scared of technology and keep making up paranoid excuses and rhetorical questions for why we should never attempt to improve or invent anything.

  31. Using steam turbines seems like “old technology ” – isn’t there a way to produce electricity directly from the nuclear radiation – like solar panels do from the sun ?

  32. When I read a lot of the comments here, I’m reminded of the days before widespread electricity adoption, when tons of people scoffed at the idea of electrifying homes and businesses over safety concerns. While there are sometimes accidents involving electric power and/or electric power plants, their concerns over safety were obviously a bit overblown compared to the benefits humanity has gained from widespread electric power. While I can appreciate the fact that nuclear accidents and threats are scary, that doesn’t negate the enormous benefits to the environment as well as human health and standards of living that an earnest pursuit of ever safer and more efficient nuclear energy technologies could bring.

    For instance, technologies like this could quite literally mean the difference between life and death if they were deployed quickly following natural disasters that result in the destruction of failure of a local power grid (recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico, fires in the pacific northwest, and the recent ice storm in Texas spring to mind). Frankly, after reading this, I’m convinced that might be the best use for this technology. Cities, states, and military facilities with long term power needs can (and should) invest in power plants that make the best use of available resources without harming the environment. In some places that will be solar, wind, hydro, or geothermal. In places those resources are unavailable or cost prohibitive, a modern nuclear facility with robust safety protocols is a good alternative to, say, a coal fired power plant.

    That said, the need to deploy city-scale amounts of electric power quickly in a crisis will only become more urgent as climate change causes the number and severity of such crises to increase. Since none of the above natural energy sources can fill that need, the development of this technology (and adequate safety protocols for deployment) make a lot of sense. Imagine it: you’re unfortunate enough to live in an area devastated by a recent natural disaster. In the aftermath, although much of the electricity infrastructure is still intact, damage to the local power plant resulting in reduced capacity or complete shutdown has left millions of residents in the dark, and facilities like hospitals scrambling to make sure they have fuel to power their generators. Fortunately, one or more of these units arrive courtesy of FEMA, and power is restored to the majority of people in a matter of days rather than weeks or months. Once they’re no longer needed, units could be transported back to a central facility for re-deployment as needed.

  33. In fact some form of nuclear power is our only way put. So called “sustainable power”will never sustain our ever growing need for power. EVs are useless if you can’t charge them. Small nuclear power plants have been used with great success on submarines and other military vessels. I’m all in at least in as far as the concept is concerned.

  34. Any and all “solutions” to global warming are much too little and much too late. Global warming is a symptom, not a problem. The root cause is TOO MANY PEOPLE. My carbon footprint is not the problem, it’s how many people have any kind of carbon footprint. But no politicians will accept a rollback of population, or even a stabilization of the population because all economic systems ore based on growth, the great god which all politicians worship. Even now, the prospect of population stabilization has politicians offering incentives for more people to come (West Virginia) and reversal of incentives to reduce the rate of population growth (China).
    Anyone who thinks that global warming can be stopped or even brought under control must think that any and all cancers can be cured with a band-aid

  35. This would be great in California for isolated communities — with a local nuke battery there would be no need for the high power transmission lines that keep sparking wildfires.

  36. The insurmountable problem will be public opinion.

  37. What is the anticipated fuel cycle for this machine? What happens to the spent fuel? (Right now, in the larger nuclear plants, spent fuel is stored onsite, because nobody wants to store it, or allow it to be transported through their state). Would you allow a nuclear waste site in your subdivision? Where would the “battery” go when it is beyond its useful life? I think it’s a great idea, really, but I need to see the back end of the plan.

  38. No one seems to be concerned about all the tritium that is created by any light water reactor pressurized or not. While the half life of tritium is only 12.5 years, and it is a weak beta emitter, since it is hydrogen chemically it cannot be contained. Our current nuclear reactors dump that tritium into the air and water where it gets into people’s bodies and breaks molecules like DNA.
    Managing rows and ignoring this biologically dangerous byproduct is critical if the amount of nuclear power is drastically increased. I believe we would be much better off with microreactors that do not moderate with water.

  39. The “gov’t” has HAD nuclear batteries SINCE the 70’s SAFELY!!!!!

    YOU DO NOT, however……

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